Marriage Vows: Level of Conflict in Relationships Stays Constant Through Life

VIDEO: Wave of baby boomer couples stay together but live apart.
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So you're contemplating walking down the aisle with your dearly beloved, but you're a little concerned about the bickering that seems to haunt your relationship. That will change once you tie the knot, right?

Probably not, according to a new study. In most marriages, the level of conflict remains remarkably steady throughout a relationship. If you fought in the beginning, you will likely fight in the end. But if you didn't fight too much early on, you probably will work out your disagreements peacefully and enjoy a happy relationship as the decades roll by, according to the study.

"When you get into a marriage your conflict levels that you start with are likely going to persist over time," Claire Kamp Dush, lead author of research published in the Journal of Family Issues, said in a telephone interview. Kamp Dush, of Ohio State University, and co-researcher Miles G. Taylor of Florida State University based their conclusions on a huge resource compiled by Penn State called the "Marital Instability Over the Life Course" survey.

That survey includes repeated interviews that started in 1980 with 2,033 married individuals, 55 or younger, over a 20 year period, and it has been used for numerous studies of the sometimes rocky relationship we humans call marriage.

Kamp Dush's research reveals several factors that influence the quality of a relationship.

Some conflict is good. You need to work through your inevitable disagreements.

No conflict is bad. It probably means neither partner is really involved in the marriage.

It helps if couples enter marriage thinking marriage is forever. People who believed that seemed to have the happiest marriages, perhaps because they were more willing to work though their problems in a lifelong effort to fulfill their own expectations.

And finally, "a stronger belief in lifelong marriage, shared decision making, and husbands sharing a greater proportion of housework (get that guys?) were associated with an increased likelihood" of high happiness and low conflict throughout a marriage, the study concludes.

"I like to see a marriage that is equal in decision making, and husbands help out around the house, where you have some conflict but you're satisfied in your marriage and you are working through it effectively" Kamp Dush said.

Constant Results -- From Those Who Stayed in Study

Few could argue with that, but the fundamental finding of the study is that conflict is always going to be there, in about the same intensity, over the long haul.

The portrait painted by the study is very general in nature, and lacks the intimate details that can only be acquired in personal, in-depth interviews over an extended period of time. The Penn State data is based on five telephone interviews over two decades, and most of the participants had dropped out by the end of the study. By 2000, only 962 participated in the final interview. Some had died, others could no longer be found, but 35 percent simply refused to go on with the study.

The researchers say the results show that the level of conflict remains steady throughout a marriage, but some could argue that the data really shows that conflict remains steady in marriages that succeed. It seems likely that many of the drop-outs no longer wanted to talk about a marriage that failed.

Parenthood Tough on Marriages

Kamp Dush argues that the findings are generally valid for marriage as a whole, not just successful marriages, because some of the participants were divorced by the year 2000, and their answers were included in the final analysis. But it will always be unclear as to why so many dropped out.

During the interview, Kamp Dush conceded that while her study suggests conflict remains relatively stable, that may not always be the case. When a life-changing event occurs - sickness, loss of work, drug or alcohol dependence - "conflict can increase dramatically," she said.

"Having a baby, and the transition to parenthood, sends the conflict up," she added. "We know that having a child with a disability can be really hard on a marriage, and losing a child to death can increase the likelihood of divorce."

So conflict remains stable, as long as nothing really serious happens.

But perhaps - and this goes beyond the study's conclusions - married couples who have learned how to deal with the conflicts, even the little problems, are simply better equipped to deal with a life-changing event than couples who ignored their conflicts. Many studies would certainly support that.

So what is to be gleaned from the new study?

The researchers based the level of marital conflict on how often respondents said they disagreed with their spouse - never, rarely, sometimes, often, or very often. That separated the participants into high, middle and low conflict marriages. About 16 percent reported little conflict, and 60 percent had only moderate levels of conflict.

Significantly, persons in low conflict relationships were more likely to say they shared decision-making with their spouses.

"It may be that if both spouses have a say in decision making, they are more satisfied with their relationship and are less likely to fight," Kamp Dush said.

That could come in very handy down the road when disaster strikes. The level of conflict will likely rise, but they have dealt with it in the past, and perhaps now they are better equipped to deal with a "life changing event."

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